THURSDAY 9 AUGUST 2001
It is a glorious day: a day for watching cricket, for drinking Pimm’s, for building sandcastles, for mowing the lawn. Not a day to be travelling in a sweatbox for 120 miles.
Having served twenty-one days and fourteen hours in Belmarsh, I am about to be transported to HMP Wayland, a Category C prison in Norfolk. A Group 4 van is my chauffeur-driven transport, with two cubicles for two prisoners. I remain locked in for fifteen minutes awaiting the arrival of a second prisoner. I hear him talking, but can’t see him. Is he also going to Wayland?
At last the great electric gates of Belmarsh slide open and we begin our journey east. My temporary moving residence is a compartment four feet by three with a plastic seat. I feel nauseous within ten minutes, and am covered in sweat within fifteen.
The journey to Wayland prison in Norfolk takes just over three hours. As I peer through my tiny window I recognize the occasional familiar landmark on the Cambridge leg of the trip. Once the university city is behind us, I have to satisfy myself with a glimpse at signposts whenever we slow down at roundabouts to pinpoint where we are: Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds, Thetford. So for this particular period of my life that very special lady, Gillian Shephard, will be my Member of Parliament.
The roads become narrower and the trees taller the further east we travel. When we finally arrive at Wayland it couldn’t be in starker contrast to the entrance of Belmarsh with its foreboding high walls and electric gates. And – most pleasing of all – not a member of the press in sight. We drive into the yard and come to a halt outside the reception area. I sense immediately a different atmosphere and a more casual approach by prison officers. But then their daily tariff is not gangland murderers, IRA terrorists, rapists and drug barons.
The first officer I meet as I walk into reception is Mr Knowles. Once he has completed the paperwork, he signs me over to a Mr Brown, as if I were a registered parcel. Once again, I am strip-searched before the officer empties my HMP Belmarsh plastic bag onto the counter and rummages through my possessions. He removes my dressing gown, the two large blue towels William had so thoughtfully supplied and a blue tracksuit. He informs me that they will be returned to me as soon as I am enhanced.
‘How long will that take?’ I ask.
‘Usually about three months,’ he replies casually, as if it were a few grains of sand passing through an hourglass. I don’t think I’ll mention to Mr Brown that I’m hoping to be moved within a few days, once the police enquiry into Baroness Nicholson’s complaint concerning the Simple Truth appeal has been seen for what it is.
Mr Brown then places my beige slacks and blue shirt on one side, explaining that I won’t get those back until I’ve been released or transferred. He replaces them with a striped blue prison shirt and a pair of jeans. After signing over my personal possessions, my photograph is taken, holding up a little blackboard with the chalk letters FF 8282 under my chin, just as you’ve seen in films.
I am escorted by another officer to what I would describe as the quartermaster’s stores. There I am handed one towel (green), one toothbrush (red), one tube of toothpaste, one comb, two Bic razors and one plastic plate, plastic bowl and plastic cutlery.
Having placed my new prison property in the plastic bag along with the few possessions I am allowed to retain, I am escorted to the induction wing. Mr Thompson, the induction officer, invites me into his office. He begins by telling me that he has been in the Prison Service for ten years, and therefore hopes he will be able to answer any questions I might have.
‘You begin your life on the induction wing,’ he explains, ‘where you’ll share a cell with another prisoner.’ My heart sinks as I recall my experience at Belmarsh. I warn him that whoever I share a cell with will sell his story to the tabloids. Mr Thompson laughs. How quickly will he find out? Prison would be so much more bearable if you could share a cell with someone you know. I can think of a dozen people I’d be happy to share a cell with, and more than a dozen who ought to be in one.
When Mr Thompson finishes his introductory talk, he goes on to assure me that I will be moved into a single cell on another block once I’ve completed my induction.
‘How long will that take?’ I ask.
‘We’re so overcrowded at the moment,’ he admits, ‘that it could take anything up to a month.’ He pauses. ‘But in your case I hope it will be only a few days.’
Mr Thompson then describes a typical day in the life of Wayland, making it clear that prisoners spend considerably less time locked in their cells than they do at Belmarsh, which is a slight relief. He then lists the work choices: education, gardening, kitchen, workshop or wing cleaner. But he warns me that it will take a few days before this can be sorted out. Nothing is ever done today in the Prison Service, and rarely even tomorrow. He describes how the canteen works, and confirms that I will be allowed to spend £12.50 per week there. I pray that the food will be an improvement on Belmarsh. Surely it can’t be worse.
Mr Thompson ends his dissertation by telling me that he’s selected a quiet room-mate, who shouldn’t cause me any trouble. Finally, as I have no more questions, he accompanies me out of his little office down a crowded corridor packed with young men aged between eighteen to twenty-five, who just stand around and stare at me.
My heart sinks when he unlocks the door. The cell is filthy and would have been the subject of a court order by the RSPCA if any animal had been discovered locked inside. The window and window sill are caked in thick dirt – not dust, months of accumulated dirt – the lavatory and the wash basin are covered not with dirt, but shit. I need to get out of here as quickly as possible. It is clear that Mr Thompson doesn’t see the dirt and is oblivious to the cell’s filthy condition. He leaves me alone only for a few moments before my cell-mate strolls in. He tells me his name, but his Yorkshire accent is so broad that I can’t make it out and resort to checking on the cell card attached to the door.
Chris is about my height but more stocky. He goes on talking at me, but I can understand only about one word in three. When he finally stops talking he settles down on the top bunk to read a letter from his mother while I begin to make up my bed on the bunk below. He chuckles and reads out a sentence from her letter: ‘If you don’t get this letter, let me know and I’ll send you another one.’ By the time we are let out to collect our supper I have discovered that he is serving a five-year sentence for GBH (grievous bodily harm), having stabbed his victim with a Stanley knife. This is Mr Thompson’s idea of someone who isn’t going to cause me any trouble.
All meals are served at a hotplate, situated on the floor below. I wait patiently in a long queue only to discover that the food is every bit as bad as Belmarsh. I return to my cell empty-handed, grateful that canteen orders at Wayland are on a Friday (tomorrow). I extract a box of Sugar Puffs from my plastic bag and fill the bowl, adding long-life milk. I munch a Belmarsh apple and silently thank Del Boy.
Exercise: there are several differences between Belmarsh and Wayland that are immediately apparent when you walk out into the exercise yard. First, you are not searched, second, the distance you can cover without retracing your steps can be multiplied by five – about a quarter of a mile – third, the ratio of black to white prisoners is now 30/70 – compared to 70/30 at Belmarsh – and fourth, my arrival in Norfolk causes even more unsolicited pointing, sniggering and loutish remarks, which only force me to curtail my walk fifteen minutes early. I wish Mr Justice Potts could experience this for just one day.
On the first long circuit, the salesmen move in.
‘Anything you need, Jeff? Drugs, tobacco, phonecards?’
They’re all quite happy to receive payment on the outside by cheque or cash. I explain to them all firmly that I’m not interested, but it’s clearly going to take a few days before they realize I mean it.
When the barrow boys and second-hand salesmen have departed empty-handed, I’m joined by a lifer who tells me he’s also sixty-one, but the difference is that he’s already served twenty-seven years in prison and still doesn’t know when, if ever, he‘ll be released. When I ask him what he’s in for, he admits to killing a policeman. I begin a conversation with a black man on the other side of me, and the lifer melts away.
Several of the more mature prisoners turn out to be in for ‘white collar’ crimes: fiddling the DSS, the DTI or HM Customs. One of them, David, joins me and immediately tells me that he’s serving five years.
‘What for?’ I ask.
‘No, spirits,’ he confesses.
‘I didn’t realize that was against the law. I thought you could pop across to Calais and . . .’
‘Yeah, you can, but not sixty-five times in sixty-five days with a two-ton lorry, carrying twenty million quid’s worth of whisky.’ He pauses. ‘It’s when you forget to cough up eight million quid in duty that the Customs and Excise become a little upset.’
A young man in his late twenties takes the place of the police murderer on the other side of me. He brags that he’s been banged up in six jails during the past ten years, so if I need a Cook’s tour he’s the best-qualified operator.
‘Why have you been sent to six jails in ten years?’ I enquire.
‘No one wants me,’ he admits. ‘I’ve done over two thousand burglaries since the age of nineteen, and every time they let me out, I just start up again.’
‘Isn’t it time to give it up, and find something more worthwhile to do?’ I ask naively.
‘No chance,’ he replies. ‘Not while I’m making over two hundred grand a year, Jeff.’
After a time, I become sick of the catcalling, so leave the exercise yard and return to my cell, more and more disillusioned, more and more cynical. I don’t consider young people, who are first offenders and have been charged with minor offences, should be sent to establishments like this, where one in three will end up on drugs, and one in three will commit a far more serious offence once they’ve received tuition from the prison professors.
The next humiliation I have to endure is prisoners queuing up silently outside my cell door to get a look at me. No ‘Hi, Jeff, how are you?’ Just staring and pointing, as if I’m some kind of an animal at the zoo. I sit in my cage, relieved when at eight o’clock an officer slams the doors closed.
I’m just about to start writing up what has happened to me today when Chris switches on the television. First we have half an hour of EastEnders followed by Top Gear, and then a documentary on Robbie Williams. Chris is clearly establishing his right to leave the TV on, with a programme he has selected, at a volume that suits him. Will he allow me to watch Frasier tomorrow?
I lie in bed on my thin mattress, my head resting on a rock-hard pillow, and think about Mary and the boys, aware that they too must be enduring their own private hell. I feel as low as I did during my first night at Belmarsh. I have no idea what time I finally fall asleep. I thought I had escaped from hell.
So much for purgatory.